Looking for things to do during a trip to London next weekend, I spotted this wonderful photo of Russell Square:
It’s hard to tell how high the plane is, but I’m sure someone could work it out, calculating its length compared to the length of a given city block. But it doesn’t look very high.
Posted: 6/9/2013 by kirk | Filed under: iPhone, iPod & iTunes, Miscellanea | 1 Comment »
Since my move to England, I’ve had far too many problems with my mobile phone service. It started when I switch to EE (Everything Everywhere) and found that my iPhone was bleeding data. This resolved eventually, though EE didn’t help me very much.
The day I bought my mobile phone contract, I asked about temporary 3G access for my Mac. When I moved from a temporary apartment to a permanent one, I needed to have internet access while I waited for my broadband to be activated. The salesperson recommended that I buy a T-Mobile USB stick with 3 GB data, good for three months. He said it was a current offer, and might not last long, so I should buy it right away. I asked if it was compatible with OS X, and he said it was. So I spent £30 for the package.
Turns out, he was wrong. I tried to set it up a couple of days ago, and it froze my Mac often, as well as disrupting Bluetooth (my trackpad and keyboard are wireless). So I removed it, and went to the EE store to ask for a refund. To my surprise, I was pretty much laughed out of the store. Since it was more than 14 days after I bought it – even though it doesn’t work – the response in the store was, essentially, “too bad for you.”
Contacting EE, then T-Mobile customer support, they confirmed that, even though the device doesn’t work as I was told, there’s no way I can get a refund. So that’s £30 lost for a piece of crap that doesn’t work. I don’t know if I should fault the salesperson; he might simply have assumed that it would work with OS X correctly. The box has no compatibility information, but the T-Mobile website says it’s compatible with 10.7; that is, the version of OS X that is two years old. T-Mobile can’t be bothered getting the software updated to make it work.
But this is only the tip of the iceberg. I’ve found that mobile phone companies and ISPs generally lie about their services here: about bandwidth, pricing, so-called “unlimited” data or call packages and more. It seems that consumers have very little power in this country; or rather that the telecom companies act with impunity saying pretty much what they want with no control. I’m disappointed, and miss the relative simplicity (and lower prices) that I was accustomed to in France. In all my years using the internet and mobile phones in France, I never had as many problems as I have had here in less than two months.
Oh, and the broadband? It was supposed to be set up by June 3; it’s now the 4th, and it’s not on yet…
Update: A Twitter follower pointed out that the Sale of Goods Act says that I should be entitled to a refund. I’ll go back to the shop when I get some time and bring this up. But I don’t feel that I should have to waste this much time because of deceptive sales practices. I’m really surprised that EE/T-Mobile care so little about their customers. These problems have just made me want to go elsewhere.
Posted: 6/4/2013 by kirk | Filed under: Miscellanea Tags: telephone | 1 Comment »
The recent hullabaloo over Apple not paying income tax is almost surreal. The company has so much money overseas – currently some $100 billion in cash – that it has issued bonds to proceed with a share buy-back plan. The interest on the bonds is much less than the amount of tax the company would pay if they repatriated some of their income.
In addition, it turns out that Apple negotiated a “secret deal” with the Irish government back in the 1980s, so they only pay 2% income tax on the money they park in that country, though they actually only paid about 0.5%.
My question here is not whether it is moral for Apple to do this (the law allows them to do so), but why Apple or any other major corporation is not treated like other US citizens?
Expatriate US citizens – whether they are permanent residents of other countries or not – are taxed by the US on their foreign income. There is an earned income exclusion, which increases from time to time, and which does not take into account exchange rates. A US citizen could be well under the threshold for paying taxes one year, but if on the date that the exchange rate is calculated, the rate is unfavorable, they could owe taxes the following year on the same amount of income. (The current earned income exclusion is $95,100 for an individual, and $190,200 for a couple.) This exclusion also does not take into account the relative cost of living of a country. If the cost of living is higher, salaries will be higher. I experienced this 25 years ago when I lived in Norway for a year; everything cost nearly twice as much as France (where I was living before that), but salaries were higher to compensate.
In addition, the paperwork for Americans overseas filing taxes is substantial, complicated, and in many cases requires the use of a tax attorney or accountant. (See this Boston Globe article for more about this issue.)
What’s even more unfair is that Americans abroad are taxed twice. Once in the country they live in, and another time, if they earn more than the earned income exclusion, by the US. It’s interesting to note that the only other country in the entire world that does this is Eritrea.
Yet Apple isn’t even a resident of another country. Their subsidiaries are, but those subsidiaries only make money for the US company; Apple doesn’t have separate business entities for different countries or territories. (Though they manage to avoid paying VAT in all EU countries but one by “locating” their iTunes Store activities in Luxembourg, where VAT is only 3%, thereby denying VAT income to other countries where digital content is purchased.)
It’s obvious that expatriate Americans get little or nothing in exchange for their taxes. Other than the low-probability events requiring getting bailed out by the US Consulate, Americans abroad get no Social Security benefits, no unemployment, no health care, or anything else for their tax dollars. Apple, however, and other global corporations, get huge benefits from the US legal system, research infrastructure, publicly-subsidized education system, and the many international treaties and agreements governing such key factors to their success as intellectual property and trade regulations. So all of Apple’s sales overseas benefit from the broader fact that it is a US company.
So let’s treat Apple – and Google, Amazon, Yahoo! and all the others – like American citizens. Tax their overseas income, don’t let them set up a web of tax shelters, but make them pay their share.
Posted: 5/27/2013 by kirk | Filed under: Apple & Mac OS X, Miscellanea Tags: Apple, taxes | 15 Comments »
If you’re a regular reader, you’ll know that I recently moved from France to England. About a year ago, I wrote an article for TidBITS about how a company called Free had shaken up the cellphone industry in France. I had an iPhone contract with unlimited calls, texts and data (truly unlimited; no “fair use”), for only €16.
Well, my arrival in the UK changed things. One quickly learns that there’s little competition in the phone market, and prices are higher. While there are carriers that offer unlimited calls and texts, unlimited data is rarer. And one carrier, Three, that offers unlimited data, doesn’t offer unlimited calls and texts.
I started out using GiffGaff, a company run by O2 that sells pre-pay SIM cards. It was practical, and fairly inexpensive, but it doesn’t allow tethering, which I occasionally need. So I switched to EE, which offers good coverage (the company, Everything Everywhere, was born of a merger between Orange and T-Mobile), and decent prices, with an unlimited call and text plan. But since I didn’t use a lot of data, I settled for their basic 500 MB per month plan at £21 a month, or about 50% more than what I was paying in France (but, remember, my French contract had unlimited data).
Before moving to EE, I was using about 250 MB per month. The last two weeks with GiffGaff, from when I topped up my SIM card on April 15, to May 2, when I switched, I used about 120 MB of data. That made me think that the 500 MB with EE would be more than enough. But things got weird.
I went away for a few days, without Wi-Fi access, and discovered that my phone had eaten 260 MB in just the first five days of my contract. I was using the exact same apps and services as with GiffGaff, with the exception of an EE app to track my usage. I called EE customer service, and they were not very helpful. While the person did give me a credit for 250 MB of data, she suggested I download an app that would track data usage by app on my phone. This app no longer works on iOS 6, but I found another. This app showed much less data usage than what the iPhone – and EE – was reporting. While no such app can be precise, it only shows about half the data that the iPhone and EE report that I’m using.
I’ve tried all the usual troubleshooting routines. I’ve turned off all services – push notifications, automatic email checking, iCloud, location services, etc. – and data was still going in and out of my phone. I’ve restored the phone – an annoyingly time-consuming process – and data is still flowing like a broken tap. Here are two screen shots. The first is when I restored the iPhone; data is 0. The second is less than an hour later, while the phone was syncing.
In less than one hour, 19 MB was used, doing nothing. (There were some push services on, and perhaps one or two emails downloaded, but nothing else.) Imagine if I was using the phone? If usage continues at that rate, it could exceed 200 MB per day!
The only possibility is that EE’s carrier services have an issue which appears on some iPhones. I’ve seen hundreds of reports of different iPhone users having similar issues on all sorts of networks, and no solutions anywhere regarding how to track down what’s using up all the data.
So my only solution is to cancel the contract with EE: they clearly mis-sold me this contract; there’s a latent defect in their network service, which would clearly cost me much more were I to continue using them with my iPhone. (I’m paying £21 a month, and I would need to pay at least £31 a month to have enough of a data allowance.)
So, dear reader, have you confronted a similar problem of suddenly excessive data usage, with EE or any other carrier? Have you found a cause and a solution? I’m curious. From everything I’ve seen on the internet, there is no clear cause, and no solution, other than to turn off cellular data, which kind of defeats the purpose of having a smart phone.
Update: I’ve spent way too much time trying to solve this problem over the past two days. At the suggestion of a friend, I downloaded an app called ActMonitor, which shows system processes that are active, but also shows real-time incremental data transfers. So I could see exactly when data was coming into and going out of my phone, though not by process, which would have solved the problem immediately.
With this in hand, I tried turning on and off features, such as push, iCloud, etc. I rebooted the phone, and saw that there was about 2 K/sec going out and coming into the phone. When I turned off push, this stopped. But when I turned push back on, the data did not start sending again. This suggests that there’s a carrier problem with the way it handles push; it’s as though the first time, the carrier’s servers don’t register something correctly, but the second time they do.
For now I’ll leave push off – it’s useful to get emails more quickly in some situations, but not a deal-breaker – and see how much data I use over the next few days.
Posted: 5/8/2013 by kirk | Filed under: Apple & Mac OS X, iPhone, Miscellanea Tags: iPhone | 5 Comments »
I recently mentioned that I will soon be moving to England, York to be exact. My move will take place in about ten days.
For the past few months, as I’ve been preparing my move, I’ve read a number of books about England and the English, some that I’ve uncovered, and others that friends have recommended. I thought I’d post some brief comments about a few of them in case anyone is interested in learning more about the English. (And for my English readers, you might find some of them enlightening.)
Bill Bryson is an American writer who moved to England in his early twenties, and eventually settled in Yorkshire. His Notes from a Small Island is a travelogue that recounts his journeys through England, almost entirely on public transportation. (Amazon US, Amazon UK) At times, I was in tears reading this book, but at other times, it’s a bit forced. Nevertheless, it’s a delightful portrait of the English, though a bit out of date.
BBC journalist Jeremy Paxman’s The English: A Portrait of a People (Amazon US Amazon UK tries to answer the question, “What is it to be English?” It does so quite well, examining a number of habits, customs and unwritten rules that explained a great deal of English concepts to me. (I was aided by a friend, who helped me better understand some of the subtleties the book presented.) It’s an interesting read, but many of the points Paxman makes won’t be obvious to those who haven’t been in England much.
In a similar vein, but in much more detail, is Watching the English, by Kate Fox. (Amazon US Amazon UK) Fox, an anthropologist, set out to discover what the “rules” of Englishness are. Undaunted by the observer’s paradox, she gleefully presents her conclusions, and her experiences, as she held a magnifying glass to her own culture. One of my informants questioned many of Fox’s points, so I’m taking them with a grain of salt. Yet I’ve already seen that a lot of what she says does apply, though the book is getting on in years.
Who better than Christopher Hitchens to examine the “special relationship” between the English and the Americans. In Blood, Class and Empire: The Enduring Anglo-American Relationship (Amazon US Amazon UK), Hitchens looks at the political ramifications of this long relationship, while also throwing in some more quotidian comments on American Anglophilia and the English attitude toward Americans. Hitchens, himself British, but who lived in the US for more than two decades, until his recent death, was a polymath, so much of the historical minutiae was over my head, but he’s such a fun writer to read that this book is a delight.
I’ve also read a handful of books on British history, but I won’t mention them here. And I have, of course, read all of Henry James, whose writings do help understand “old England.” If anyone has suggestions for other books to help me understand the English, feel free to post in the comments.
Posted: 3/28/2013 by kirk | Filed under: books, Miscellanea Tags: books, England | 9 Comments »
If you follow this blog, you’ll have noticed that I haven’t posted anything in a while. I’ve been busy with work at Macworld, and other work, but the main reason for my silence is that I’m preparing a big move.
In about ten days, I’ll be moving from my current home in the French Alps to York, England. The past three months have been very busy preparing this move, setting up a business in England, finding an apartment and more. I’ve visited York several times since January – along with other English cities – and I’m currently getting things ready for my impending move.
To all my friends in England: thanks for all your help planning and organizing this move. Without all of you, this would have been much more complicated. And to those who are helping me understand this odd culture where they speak my native language, I’m looking forward to learning more about your country.
So to all my readers, be patient; once I get settled, I’ll get back to posting here more regularly. In the meantime, here’s a photo of the York Minster on a (rare) sunny day in February.
Posted: 3/27/2013 by kirk | Filed under: Miscellanea Tags: England | 11 Comments »
I wrote not long ago about some terrible customer service from Fujitsu regarding a recently acquired S1500 M scanner. I got the scanner replaced finally from the Apple online store here in France, and it turns out the replacement has exactly the same problem.
I’ve narrowed it down to color scans: the scanner can automatically detect color and black and white, and scan accordingly. Since most of the scans I did the first time around were black and white, it only showed up occasionally, but I’m seeing exactly the same thing now: the colored lines you see below.
Fujitsu’s technical support told me this was a hardware problem; so what’s odd is getting two units with exactly the same problem. This suggests that there’s a whole series of bad scanners out there, and I’m not really tempted to get another only to have the same problem.
I’ll contact Apple soon – after I’ve finished scanning my accounting files, in black and white – and see what they want to do. But I’m disappointed that this scanner, which has gotten excellent reviews, has a repeatable problem like this.
Posted: 1/15/2013 by kirk | Filed under: Miscellanea Tags: troubleshooting | No Comments »
Photo © charel.irrthum used under Creative Commons license. Thank you.
(This article was originally published in Issue 5 of The Magazine)
If you count the number of people who watch the Tour de France in person, the race is the most popular sporting event in the world. The playing field encompasses the roads of France, and three-quarters of French people have seen the Tour go by at least once.
From open roads to steep, sinuous climbs, spectators line the roadside to watch the peloton — the pack of riders — go by for just a few seconds. Some people drive up mountain roads in campers and wait for two or three days to catch a glimpse of their favorite riders, and others just walk out in front of their homes.
Its logistics rival that of an army heading off to battle. There are hundreds of vehicles, thousands of people, and a schedule that has to be respected to the minute across more than 3,000 kilometers (1,900 miles) over three weeks, all for a sporting event that attracts about 12 million spectators from dozens of countries. And, best of all, it’s free.
For a dozen years, I lived on the outskirts of a town in the French Alps, on a road leading up to one of the toughest climbs in the race: the Col d’Izoard. The route of the Tour de France changes each year, but the race comes back often to the most spectacular climbs, such as that mountain. In 12 years, the Tour de France came past my house three times; other cycling races, heading to or from the same climb, whizzed by a few times as well.
The big picture
Napoleon Bonaparte said that an army marches on its stomach. The army of the Tour de France, which enables spectators to see the race for a few seconds, consists of 4,500 people, 2,400 vehicles, 198 riders and their retinues, and an “advertising caravan” of 160 vehicles that toss 14 million tchotchkes to spectators lining the roads. A phalanx of daredevil motorcyclists carry camera operators to show the race from inside the pack, and helicopters and airplanes help beam live video to satellites for broadcast in 190 countries.
As for the spectators, the 12 million watchers stay there an average of six and a half hours — though to get a good seat in the toughest climbs, you need to stake out your spot a couple of days ahead of time. And keeping order is no mean feat either; there are more than 23,000 law-enforcement officers involved during the three-week period.
But none of that matters when you’re watching the Tour in your own town.
Posted: 1/13/2013 by kirk | Filed under: Miscellanea Tags: Sports | No Comments »
Getting in gear
While catching a glimpse of the Tour de France is a day trip for many, there’s little preparation when the race comes right in front of your house. You first need to find out roughly what time the race will be passing. The Tour de France’s web site shows estimated times, but the easiest way to know when it’s closing in is to put on the TV.
French broadcast TV channels show from four to eight hours a day of the Tour, depending on the stage. For the grueling mountain climbs, either on weekends or the July 14th holiday, they generally show the entire stage. If you watch where the race is, you’ll have an idea how long before it reaches you.
Even with the TV off, however, you can’t miss the Tour de France convoy coming your way. It starts early in the morning, or even the night before, as crews come through with trucks and put up barriers to block every intersection along the route. (Think about how much work this is, with stages that can be over 200 km or 125 miles.) There’s also a member of the local or national police at just about every intersection and in areas likely to attract a lot of viewers.
Then come the cars. Dozens of cars. Hundreds of cars. A couple thousand cars, in fact, heading from the city where they spent the night to the town where the day’s stage will finish. Starting at mid-morning, with the roads closed to normal traffic, you see car after car containing team crews, journalists, and race organizers heading along the road. There are periods where the road is quiet, but never for more than a minute or so.
About an hour before the first cyclists are due to come begins the first attraction of the day: the advertising caravan.
The Tour de France is not a charity: it’s a privately-run moneymaking operation. With a total purse of some €3.5 million (about $4.5 million), the race needs income. Part of this is borne by the cities and towns that host the Tour: it costs €60,000 ($78,000) to be the town where a stage starts and €90,000 ($117,000) for a finish. In addition, the town must provide infrastructure and cover expenses for security; in 2011, the small resort town of l’Alpe-d’Huez spent €280,000 ($364,000) on this. Of course, these towns benefit from the many people who fill the local hotels and from being nationally and internationally televised.
But the most visible part of the advertising iceberg is the “caravane publicitaire”: the long advertising caravan of cars, trucks, and floats that heads up the race. Leaving about an hour before the peloton, these vehicles feature booming music and gesticulating young people tossing out samples, stickers, and hats. Kids and adults alike lean forward on the edge of the road trying to grab the goodies tossed their way. And there’s generally one bottled water company that has a float that — you guessed it — sprays water on the spectators, something welcome in hot summers.
After the advertising caravan, there’s a bit of a lull, and most of the locals head back home to watch the race on TV to see when it’s getting closer. (Mobile apps providing live video have made that unnecessary.) For a while, you see the occasional car or motorcycle go by, and spectators gather in little groups to discuss the status of the race, what’s happened in previous stages, and who they think the winner will be.
If anyone has a radio, people gather around in silence to hear the status of the race, who just attacked, and how much time there is between the leaders and the rest of the pack. And long-time fans of the Tour swap stories about their favorite memories of both current and past cyclists. It’s a relaxed but expectant atmosphere. Anticipation fills the air until the first sounds of the impending arrival. This is the pre-game analysis by the armchair commentators.
Standing by the side of the road over the years, I’ve met people who’ve followed the Tour for decades, who’ve travelled across the hexagon to watch their heroes. One senior citizen will recount memories of the great Bernard Hinault, and another will raise him, telling of the exploits of the eternal second-place rider, Raymond Poulidor.
Or someone will recall the 9th stage of the 1996 Tour, which started about two hours north of my town. That day, July 9, the snow was so thick on the Col du Galibier that the stage was rerouted, and shortened from 176 km to only 46. And I share my story of seeing Stephan Roche ride into the center of Dublin on the top of a double-decker bus in 1987, a couple of days after winning that year’s Tour, when hundreds of thousands of people started singing “Molly Malone.”
Two things give away the fact that the peloton is closing in. There are more motorcycles and cars, but, above all, there are helicopters. To provide excellent TV coverage, the French production team has camera operators on motorcycles and in helicopters, and a plane flies high overhead to relay the images from the ground to satellites.
The riders approach
When we hear the hum of the helicopters approaching, we all move a bit closer to the road, and anyone who has a radio or smartphone starts telling others who’s in the lead and by how much. The gendarmes stop their friendly conversations with the spectators and turn their backs on them, ready to ensure that no one runs across the road when the cyclists come.
Finally, we see the first helicopter flying askew alongside the road. It flies at about a 30-degree yaw so the camera, on the side of the craft, can get good images. The second helicopter is not far behind. And then comes the peloton.
Now everyone leans forward to get the first glimpse of the sweating riders. Everyone with a camera starts snapping photos, or shooting videos, to remember what it was like this day to watch the champions ride within inches of them. With a number of motorcycles in front to clear the road — a combination of gendarmes, photographers, and camera operators — the mass of bicycles comes up the road with a loud hissing sound: 400 tires rolling on the pavement.
The pack passes
As the multifarious beast passes in front of us, we all applaud the superhuman effort required of these riders and cheer on their favorites. We all try to catch a glimpse of our favorite rider. It’s hard to tell them apart, though you can spot the leader easily by his yellow jersey.
If it’s late in a stage, you can see the suffering on the faces of the riders, and if it’s hot, you see them pouring water over their heads to cool off. At the side of the road, children keep their eyes open for any empty water bottles the riders may toss to the side of the road, hoping to grab the best souvenir of the race that nobody can buy. The lucky ones clutch their souvenir tightly while they try to remember which rider threw it away.
Sometimes it’s slightly different when there is an “échappée,” or a breakaway. This is when one or more riders leave the peloton to try to either win a stage or simply “show their jersey,” so their sponsors’ logos get on TV for much of the day. In that case, the whole thing is split in two (or more, depending on how late in a stage it is), with cars in front of and behind each group of riders.
These riders are the real heroes of the race: the ones who push themselves the hardest, only to often get caught just before the finish. They get a rousing round of applause, because everyone knows how hard they worked to stay in front of the pack.
Or when the peloton is split in several parts, such as during climbs, the “gruppetto,” a group of riders who can’t quite keep up, follows the pack, maybe several minutes behind. We all give them extra special applause, because even those who come in last have suffered, sometimes more than the leaders who have their teammates to help them.
And it’s over
And then the riders are gone, followed by dozens of team cars with bicycles perched on their roofs. Then more race cars, a couple of ambulances, another dozen motorcycles, and the “voiture balai,” or the broom wagon, the van that picks up the riders who have given up during the stage and who will ride to the finish on four wheels.
The traffic thins out over the next few minutes until all that’s left is the memory of the riders whizzing by, and the photos that people start checking on their cameras and cellphones. The gendarmes start removing the barriers from the intersections after the majority of the cars have gone by, then head back to their usual posts.
Slowly, the spectators gather up their things, say goodbye to the people they’d been chatting with. Some may stick around to share more stories of Tours past, but most head home, where they’ll turn on the TV and watch the end of the stage to see what the race is really about.